The Traveling Father Sorin Statue

In the lobby of Sorin Hall stands a bronze statue of Father Edward Sorin.  Sculpted by Ernesto Biondi, the larger version of this statue greets visitors on Main Quad and was unveiled on May 3, 1906.  Left in the care of the Sorinites, who are no strangers to college pranks, the smaller statue had taken to wandering off by the early 1950s.

Sorin Hall residents carrying the statue of Father Sorin through campus, November 1962.  The statue had just returned to campus after a lengthy disappearance.
Sorin Hall residents carrying the statue of Father Sorin through campus, November 1962. The statue had just returned to campus via a helicopter after a traditional disappearance.

In January 1953, Scholastic reports that the statue had gone missing just before the Christmas break and that the Student Senate resolved to find the statue.  “Although traditionally a wanderer on the ND campus, Father Sorin’s present disappearance has lasted so long that concern is arising that it may be a permanent one” [Scholastic issue 01/16/1953, page 13].  Shortly thereafter, postcards and letters began coming in from the statue from destinations far and wide.  In some, Sorin claimed to have attended some of the year’s most important events such as Dwight Eisenhower’s Inauguration, Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation, and Josef Stalin’s funeral.  The mystery persisted and the culprits did not crack.  Just before Commencement 1953, the statue arrived at Main Circle in a cab to a cheering crowd.

Alumnus Camillus Witzieben later admitted to being the culprit, along with the help from a few friends.  Witzieben was a resident of Alumni Hall and found the statue in the snow as he dropped Christmas cards off at the post office (now the Knights of Columbus Building).  In stead of returning the statue to Sorin Hall, Witzieben and friend August Manier decided to extend the statue’s travels.  They buried the statue in a sand trap on the Burke Memorial Golf Course south of Alumni and Dillon Halls and later moved it to Manier’s girlfriend’s house in Chicago until its triumphant return.  In the meantime, their military friends sent the postcards from a variety of destinations around the world.

In 1955, Sorin’s “annual trip” was to the Kentucky Derby.  He sent a telegram to Notre Dame saying “that he ‘lost it all on Nashua’ and was ‘returning home’ that night at 8 o’clock.”  Sorin Hall Rector Father Cady was a good sport as the statue returned once again by car to Main Circle:  “the loud-speaker blared forth such appropriate tunes as ‘My Baby’s Comin’ Home,’ ‘Happy Wanderer,’ ‘Take Me Back,’ and ‘Dragnet.’  Father Cady, rector of Sorin, signified his approval of the whole affair with a request for ‘The Finger of Suspicion Points at You‘” [Scholastic issue 05/13/1955, page 16].

While the statue probably never went further than a Chicago basement, the fabled journeys of Fr. Sorin took a life of their own:  “I’d heard stories of seniors who took the statue around the world with them and sent back pictures of Sorin posed beside European landmarks, such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Tower of London.  I’d heard he’d even had an audience with the Pope, and that he’d returned of the back of an elephant,” said alumnus Pat Williams, Class of 1963, in a 1984 Notre Dame Magazine article.  No doubt that Williams heard some tall tales, but he was inspired to be a part of this kidnapping tradition and Sorin inevitably went missing again in the fall of 1962.  Sorin’s return during Homecoming Weekend was the most elaborate of all:  dangling from a helicopter and met by Sorinites in togas and chariots (see photo above).

Williams admits to taking the statue with him to South Carolina after graduation.  He then transferred the statue to fellow alumnus Gene McGuire in 1966, who took it home with him to Denver.  Rev. James Burtchaell heard of Sorin’s whereabouts and demanded his return to campus.  McGuire conceded, and Burtchaell secured the statue in 1972 and held onto it for ten years, while rumors and stories about the statue continued to float among the students.  Sorin Hall rector Rev. David Porterfield learned of the statue in Burtachell’s possession.  Porterfield wanted it returned to Sorin Hall, but both he and Burtachell worried about continued antics of the Sorinites.  During the hall renovations of 1983, Porterfield came up with a fool-proof solution:  “workmen filled the hollow statue with concrete and connected it to a solid wooden base with steel rods.  The rods were the soldered to the floor in Sorin’s main corridor, where the legend began so many years ago” [Peralta, page 10].

Sources:

  • Scholastic
  • Dome yearbook 1963
  • PNDP 10-So-01
  • PNDP 109-Phil:  “The Father Sorin Caper,” by Camillus Witzieben in Love Thee, Notre Dame, published by the Notre Dame Club of Philadelphia, 1987
  • “The Pilgrim Founder: ‘Father Sorin’ returns to campus after three decades of touring,” by Elizabeth Peralta, Notre Dame Magazine, Late Winter 1984, pages 9-10

 

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